Last weekend, President Trump started his first foreign trip as President of the United States in Riyadh, leaving behind the chaos his administration is facing in Washington. There, the president met an eager ruling family, joined by other Arab leaders who had awaited President Barack Obama’s departure for years.
Gulf Arab officials and President Trump harshly criticized Tehran, calling on “all nations of conscience” to “work together to isolate Iran, deny it funding for terrorism, and pray for the day when the Iranian people have the just and righteous government they deserve.” Ironically, these words were uttered as Iranians were celebrating the landslide reelection of the moderate President Hassan Rouhani for a second four-year term in office.
While in Riyadh the Trump administration was discussing a $100 billion arms deal, wrapped in anti-Iran rhetoric, Iranians were reelecting a man who had won the presidency four years’ prior on a platform of engagement with the world, including America and the Gulf Arabs.
The elections were a blow to hardliners, who had spent four years criticizing this worldview—more recently aided by the uncertainty surrounding the nuclear deal due, not least, to the rhetoric of the Trump administration.
But President Trump’s visit to Riyadh sent a different message to Iranians. The hardliners were right: Regardless of what Tehran does, the Americans are hell-bent on isolating them. The administration’s rhetoric, combined with the idea of an “Arab NATO,” all suggest as much.
But far from solving regional conflicts, this approach is likely to exacerbate already substantial sectarian tensions. This would be seen in the region as America taking sides in sectarian tensions, and on the side of the Sunnis.
It’s partially true that “everywhere you look if there is trouble in the region, you find Iran,” as Secretary of Defense James Mattis claimed. But it’s also hard to find regional conflicts where the Saudis and their Gulf Arab partners aren’t involved. Yet, the administration seems inclined not only to give them a free pass, but also to support their similarly destructive actions, particularly in Yemen.
The United States under President Trump seems to have adopted the Gulf Arabs’ view that all Iranian regional activity is nefarious and must be countered. That’s the case in certain areas, particularly Syria, where the country’s support for the Assad regime has only contributed to worsening a bloody conflict and mass atrocities.
But the Iranian presence in Iraq and Afghanistan is more complicated. In both countries, Tehran’s broader strategic objectives align with those pursued by the United States and its allies. In Iraq, Iran wants to push back against the Islamic State and secure the country’s unity and territorial integrity. It also works with some of the same groups as America, such as the Kurds. In Afghanistan, Iran wants to stabilize the country, stop the growing threat of the Islamic State’s offshoot, known as ISKP, limit opioid trafficking, and avoid another refugee influx. Washington shares these goals.
But President Trump’s stated objectives of countering the Islamic State, while countering Iran, which is already actively involved in challenging them, are at odds. For now, America can only work toward one of these goals, and the President doesn’t seem ready to choose one.
For their part, the Iranians are observing the President’s regional trip with a raised eyebrow. Viewed from Iran, the administration’s words and actions in Riyadh seem hypocritical. Standing next to Saudi FM Adel al-Jubeir, who represents a country that puts Tehran to shame when it comes to human rights violations, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson only had eyes for Iran, calling for it to respect “the rights of Iranians to freedom of speech, to freedom of organization, so that Iranians can live the life that they deserve.” Meanwhile, Iranians were quick to point out, that unlike Saudi Arabia, their country had held elections, rejected hardliners, and one of its poorest provinces had elected hundreds of female city and village councillors.
In his first press conference since his reelection this weekend, President Rouhani perfectly captured how Tehran sees its Gulf neighbors and their relationship with America. He noted that unlike the Gulf Arabs, Iran doesn’t rely on or derive its security from anyone. This is a point Iranians often stress: Riyadh outsources its security and, as a result, will always be insecure, while Iran can stand on its own two feet.
The message coming out of D.C., Riyadh and Jerusalem is to isolate Iran. Meanwhile across the Persian Gulf, Iranians are busy celebrating the resounding rejection of populist ideas and the empowerment of a candidate whose vision is to overcome isolation and engage the world. Rouhani’s team has continuously expressed an interest in dialogue with its Gulf Arab counterparts.
But today, emboldened by an administration more concerned with tactical gains than a strategic vision, Riyadh may not be as inclined to reciprocate. And without Iran-Saudi dialogue, the regional landscape is unlikely to stabilize.
Ariane M. Tabatabai is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Security Studies at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service and a Senior Associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). Follow her on Twitter: @ArianeTabatabai
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